“This is my commandment:that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12
Some of the words that come to mind when one meets Jonathan Chapman: enthusiastic, passionate, energetic, caring and creative. It is immediately clear that he has immersed himself in his role as the pastor of Westfield UCC in Killingly CT. He is dedicated to bringing this “diamond in the rough” back to some of its former glory as a downtown church in an aging, struggling former mill town.
After graduating from Elon University and Candler School of Theology at Emory University, this southerner ventured north to find a church that would be a good fit for his preaching and musical skills. Although Jon would be the first to say that the religious culture in New England is very different than in the South, he immediately felt called to serve the compassionate and caring congregation he discovered at Westfield. Westfield had encountered many of the challenges of downtown congregations – declining attendance, over-stretched budget, and long-delayed maintenance in an aging building that presents nightmares to anyone with mobility challenges (think: Stairs. Lots and lots of stairs). The tiny congregation recognized something in Jonathan and called this “young, inexperienced, green” minister to be their pastor. Just as they identified something special in him, Jonathan discerned the great potential hidden beneath the enormous steeple that towers over Main Street. Hidden in plain sight was a congregation with tremendous heart and the desire to make a difference right there in their neighborhood. Although the church had wrestled with notion of closing their doors forever, here was a minister who had the willingness to try to lead them back to life; they were a good fit for one another.
Sitting in his cramped office, there are signs everywhere of the multiple projects that demand Jonathan’s attention. There’s a pile of old church photographs on one table, a tilting tower of rolled up banners for a variety of church celebrations tucked behind a chair, and stacks of brochures precariously balanced on a file cabinet. His desk is overtaken by not one but two computer screens, filled with stunning web images that Jon designs for his own church in addition to his “side job” as web designer until the church can afford to pay him for the more-than- full-time work he offers. His rolling chair glides beneath him as he gestures with excitement about the upcoming anniversary celebration of the church (300 years!) and the accompanying capital campaign to repair the steeple, renovate the building, and install a much-needed elevator (remember all those stairs!). The fundraising goal, appropriately named the Aspire campaign, is just one sign of Jonathan’s dedication. “Look at this!” he exclaims as he pushes back the chair and roots around yet another stack of papers. “It’s the original blueprint of the building! We can see their vision for this church in this place.” It is a vision that Jonathan and the congregation have now made their own as they discover ways to minister to the many needs all around them.
As we tour the church, I have the opportunity to meet Jon’s talented husband Greg Gray seated at the pipe organ in the beautiful New England-style Congregational meeting house practicing for the upcoming anniversary celebration concert. Jonathan is in his glory while standing in the middle of the sanctuary, describing the transformation that takes place each December when the congregation hosts “Victorian Christmas” celebrations every Sunday evening. Amidst beautiful decorations and surrounded by costumed performers, visitors experience the Christmas story that can be described “either as a show or a spiritual moment, depending on what that person needs that evening,” says Jonathan. “But it gets them in the door and lets everyone know that this church is alive and sharing the love of Jesus.”
Getting people through the door is the task that every church must consider. Jonathan has taken that challenge literally. He created a set of six doors in rainbow colors which are placed on the sidewalk outside the church whenever there is a church supper or event or during a town celebration. “Why put your welcome mat inside your front door?” Jonathan asks, “We want the world to know they can come inside.” The visual invitation is clear and echoes part of Westfield’s hospitality: “everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome here.”
If people accept the invitation, they will encounter a growing congregation with a wide variety of ages. Drawings done by young children hang on the walls where older members tuck their walkers away during worship. Visitors will see the “altarscapes” that Jonathan creates to visually convey a Scripture story or church season. The white walls of the sanctuary create a blank canvas for Jonathan’s artistic vision. “Fabric is our paint,” he explains, so “we can tell God’s story visually.”
For Jonathan, part of God’s story is one of inclusion and love. Westfield officially declared their Open and Affirming welcome to all of God’s children in June 2014. Positioned right on Main Street, Jonathan’s goal is to have the church live out its calling to be the heart of the town, sharing God’s love in a variety of creative ways. High above the street, the deep, rich tones of the church bell ring out across the town, sending a message of love, hope and renewal that can draw generations together. Here is Westfield UCC, starting its fourth century of ministry proclaiming the Good News: the doors are open, everyone is welcome, come on in!